Parts 1 to 3 of this lesson can be found right here.
Part 4: The Joy of Tongue Blocking
Back in 2014, I had the opportunity to lead a Hawaiian Harmonica Retreat with my old friend JP Allen. What a joy it is for me any time I get to share my musical experience with willing and hungry harmonica students. It was during this week in Kauai that I coined the phrase, “spend a week learning to tongue-block and then spend the rest of your life thanking me.” Now just to be clear, I’m not looking for your eternal gratitude. I’m interested in sharing with you the profound musical joy of “tongue blocking.” Maybe a better way to say it is, “spend a week learning to tongue block and then spend the rest of your life thanking yourself.” Just like learning any skill, putting in a little bit of effort can pay off for a lifetime.
I believe that the first step in learning to play the harmonica is learning to create music with the breath. The first step is learning to use the great thoracic diaphragm to push and pull in subtle, musical and powerful ways. When learning a song like Jingle Bells, I encourage you first to enjoy creating a wide sound with a big breath covering about 3 or 4 holes. First, master the song’s combination of blows and draws using hand motions (see previous lesson). And then… when the time is right… when the blows and draws flow with ease and power… only then, put the very tip of your tongue on your two front teeth and see what happens. This is the beginning of tongue blocking.
Today, I’m here to ease your way into the world of tongue blocking. In this lesson, I use the song “Jingle Bells” to introduce you to something that I call a “Messy Octave.” Understand this: on a 10-hole harmonica, 2-blow and 5-blow are essentially the “same” note, an “octave” apart. A “messy” octave begins to explore (in a messy way) the idea of closing holes 3 and 4 with your tongue, while allowing holes 2 and 5 to sound. (see illustration)
The only difference between a “wide chord” and a “messy octave” is that the very tip of your tongue is beginning to explore the surface of the harmonica. Have fun. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. It’s gonna be messy at first. Little by slow, say “hello” to the world of tongue blocking!
Part 5: Mastering the Single Notes
Thanks to the Ohio Arts Council’s TeachArtsOhio program, I am spending every Friday as an “artist-in-residence” at Bucyrus Elementary School in Bucyrus, Ohio. My favorite class is at 1:00 pm when I am teaching the entire 3rd grade to play the harmonica. I’ve been doing this kind of work for almost 20 years, so I feel very confident standing in front of 120 third graders with harmonicas in their hands, but I enjoy learning something new every time.
This work calls upon my whole self. Every week, I take this 45-minute opportunity to tap into the part of myself that is the teacher, the drill sergeant, the musician, the comedian, the uncle, the brother, the spiritual advisor and the kid. I wish you could be there to see these kids get excited about “hand motions” (see previous lesson). I wonder if you’re as excited about the hand motions as these kids are. 🙂
I hope that you’ve been following along with these 5-steps to learning Jingle Bells. If not, I encourage you to go back and give it a try. I have so much confidence in this method that I believe it will benefit even the intermediate and advanced players among you.
Well… guess what! Now that you’ve sung the song, now that you’ve mastered the hand motions, now that you’ve created real power with the blows and the draws and now that you’ve explored “messy octaves,” you are ready for SINGLE NOTES!!!
In this method, we first learn to use the diaphragm in a musical way – pushing and pulling with big arm motions. Then we explore the surface of the harmonica with the tip of the tongue. The final step is to clean up the messy octave, close the left side of the mouth and direct all that power from the diaphragm into the right side of the mouth. The single note is born.
The illustration below depicts three different ways to play 5-blow.
Take your time. “Spend a day or a week or a month cleaning up those single notes and then spend the rest of your life thanking yourself.”
Using my system of notation, here’s the basic major scale. Remember, a number by itself is blow and a number that is circled is draw. ENJOY! Let me know how it goes. Peace, Hal